New para-dressage docufilm, Paragold, spotlights four athletes’ journeys as they strive to make the US Paralympic team
By Jennifer O. Bryant
Its story arc interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the long-anticipated documentary film Paragold is worth the wait.
Writer/director Ron Davis is no stranger to the horse world. His previous film credits include Harry and Snowman, about the remarkable partnership and accomplishments of the late Harry de Leyer and Snowman, a former Amish plow horse whom de Leyer rescued from slaughter and turned into a champion jumper; and Life in the Doghouse, which chronicles the successes and sacrifices of hunter/jumper trainers and life partners Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta, whose nonprofit organization, Danny and Ron’s Rescue, has placed thousands of homeless dogs. For Paragold, Davis turned his lens on the quest of four US para-equestrian dressage riders to make the team for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games—which, like the 2020 Olympics, were postponed until 2021 on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Camera crews shadowed Paralympic veterans Rebecca Hart, who was aiming to make her fourth Paralympic team; and 2016 Rio Paralympians Roxanne Trunnell and Sydney Collier. They also followed newcomer David Botana as he vied to make his first-ever Paralympic team.
Greater than Parallel
The Paralympics and para-dressage are so called because they are intended to be parallel to their able-bodied competitive counterparts. We know, of course, that Hart, Trunnell, Collier, and Botana have disabilities. But somehow, because they ride so beautifully, the para-dressage spectator may not fully grasp the severity of their impairments. Paragold pulls back the curtain to show Hart’s struggles with balance and the irreversibly dwindling mobility in her lower body; Trunnell’s speech, balance, and mobility challenges; Collier’s partial blindness and the lack of sensation on the entire left side of her body; and Botana’s growth impairment and resulting pain and other effects. The film’s subjects speak candidly about their struggles to accept and adapt to their physical conditions, and about the role horses and riding play in giving them hope, a purpose, and perhaps even a reason to live.
No Pity, No Favors
Paragold also erases any notion that para-dressage is a feel-good endeavor, with smiles and trophies all around. It is a sport, and for those trying to reach the most elite goals it is every bit as exacting, unforgiving, and expensive—the movie does not gloss over the fact that athletes require tremendous financial support in order to succeed at the international level—as any equestrian discipline.
The film follows the four athletes through the selection trials that led up to the 2020 US Paralympic dressage team’s selection. As at any dressage show, one bobble or spook can make the difference between winning and losing. Between classes at shows, and for hours on end at home, day after day, the riders submit to fitness training and physical-therapy regimens that would put many able-bodied riders to shame. The viewer quickly realizes that para-dressage riders are not disabled athletes who are trying to make it to the top; they are top athletes who happen to have disabilities.
Like any good movie that recounts actual events, Paragold heightens the viewer’s sense of anticipation about the outcome (Will they or won’t they make the team?), even when we already know how the story ends.
The beautiful para-dressage horses are icing on the cake for a film that at its core is a compelling human-interest story. You don’t need to love dressage to enjoy Paragold, which is well worth a watch.
Stream Paragold or buy the DVD beginning June 20, 2023. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, iTunes, and Vimeo. Learn more at ParagoldMovie.com.
Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection. She has covered para-dressage at the FEI World Equestrian Games and the FEI World Championships for the US Dressage Federation and the US Para-Equestrian Association.